Movie Review - Spider-Man: Homecoming
By Matthew Huntley
July 17, 2017

Slingin' webs like, well, a webslingin' guy.

As much as we all love superhero movies and still manage get a little giddy every time a new one comes out (which is just about every week), one of the side effects of their overabundance is the demystification of the heroes themselves. Because we now know so much about them and their worlds, the mystery and secrets surrounding their existence have been deflated, and it's up to the filmmakers, particularly the screenwriters, to develop a really strong script with an original plot in order to make us feel like we're not simply getting the same old story, lest our curiosity and interest wane.

Of course, the need for a strong script is only a good thing, but unfortunately for superhero movies, it's becoming more difficult and rare, which leaves entries like Spider-Man: Homecoming, an otherwise well made and high-spirited movie, as something that's only mildly pleasing instead of completely engaging. Perhaps it's unfair of me to ask so much from a genre picture when the reality is that there's going to be a lot more “average” superhero movies like this instead of more envelope-pushing ones like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or Wonder Woman. But let's be honest, the studios make such a killing off these brands, it's okay for viewers to hold them to a standard. Ideally, they should all be envelope-pushing.

That's not say this latest Spider-Man is bad or even unenjoyable, but during the movie, as Spidey swung around, spun his web, battled his enemies, saved ordinary people from mortal danger - or when his alter ego, Peter Parker, struggled to find balance in his life as a 15-year-old high school student - I couldn't help but think I'd seen all this before and that I'd perhaps seen it done better. It pains me to write this since Spider-Man is such a charming and relatable hero, and like most people, he's one of the first that comes to mind when I think about superheroes. I mean, who wouldn't want to be Spider-Man? He's nerdy yet brilliant, powerful yet humble, timid yet brave. But just because we want to be him doesn't necessarily make him thrilling to watch, which happens to be the case here.

For the record, nothing about this production feels mailed in. The energy, performances, special effects and beats by director Jon Watts, particularly when it comes to the humor, are all there. It's the script that's the “problem,” so to speak, and it's not a bad script, but it does illustrate that Spider-Man: Homecoming is a victim of bad timing. It arrives not terribly long after Sam Raimi's original Spider-Man trilogy from the early 2000s, which are still fresh in people's memories (not to mention the good-but-not-great The Amazing Spider-Man films from the early 2010s), and while Homecoming wisely relinquishes re-telling Spidey's origin story (it assumes we already know who Spider-Man is and how he got his powers), the conflicts that Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tom Holland) face seem all too routine.

Consider some of the cards the film's six (!) credited screenwriters deal him. Following the events of Captain America: Civil War, during which Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), recruited Spidey (Homecoming cleverly recaps the events of that film via Peter's home video footage), Peter desperately wants to become a full-time Avenger. He tells his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) he has an internship with Stark Industries but this is just a front for when he sneaks out at night to fight crime using the special suit Stark made him. He's hoping he'll prove himself worthy and be able to leave high school early. His experience from Civil War has left him thinking he's too good for things as rudimentary as academic decathlon, even though he has a crush on the team captain, Liz (Laura Harrier), whom he'd like to ask to the homecoming dance.

But neither Stark nor Stark's assistant, Happy (Jon Favreau), are calling, and so Peter's self-confidence is shaky and his ego fragile, which are two aspects of his personality that Raimi harnessed to great emotional effect in Spider-Man 2. Here, the pathos isn't as powerful, but we still respond to it.

Besides his insecurity, Peter's other dilemma is the new villain in town, a cynical yet realist businessman named Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), whose company was commissioned with cleaning up New York City after the events of the original Avengers. But Stark Industries takes over the job, leaving Toomes and his crew unemployed and bitter. They decide to leverage the alien technology from the New York battle by manufacturing it into deadly weapons and selling them on the black market. And, for a time, they get away with it - that is, until Spider-Man happens upon a group of bank robbers using the weapons and vows to track down their source.

Peter views Toomes' scheme as an opportunity to get in Stark's good graces and use it as a right of passage toward his Avenger initiation. But, like most 15-year-olds, he gets in over his head. Without giving away too much, he hacks into his suit and learns about its real power, although he fails to realize that “with great power comes great...”, well, you know the drill. Peter and his high school pal Ned (Jacob Batalon) partner to take Toomes down, who has since obtained a powerful suit of his own and becomes Vulture, but Peter learns the hard way it takes a lot more than a fancy suit to be a hero.

As fun and as lively as a lot of Spider-Man: Homecoming is, and as much as we care about Peter and his emotional transformation, it's essentially standard comic book fare, with the typical plot and character developments, fight scenes, chases, hanging-on-for-dear-life moments, a bonus scene during the end credits, etc. These are well executed enough but they're not exactly inspired and, after a while, we realize the movie is merely going through the motions of its genre.

On the other hand, one aspect of Spider-Man: Homecoming that is inspiring is the casting. Holland, baby-faced and slightly squeaky-voiced, is naturally likable as Peter but also unafraid to be annoying. There are times when you just want to smack him and we get a sense of Stark's frustration when his young protege lets a potential bust between one of Toomes' buyers and the FBI go awry aboard the Staten Island Ferry, which nearly leads to tragedy.

Keaton is especially good, too, as a blue-collared villain who has to work at being a villain. Toomes doesn't have special powers and Keaton makes him both despicable and intimidating, yet sympathetic and understandable. Keaton has always been one of Hollywood's more underappreciated actors, even though he constantly brings a tumultuous energy to the table. His natural talent, along with his experience as Batman and Birdman, give his villain an extra depth.

Besides Holland and Keaton, though, it was refreshing to see such diversity in the cast, which fortunately never draws attention to itself. There is more than one interracial couple in the movie and the various actors' backgrounds range from African-American to Filipino to Guatemalan, and this includes two well-known Spider-Man comic book characters, M.J. (Zendaya) and Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori). Hopefully this is the beginning of a trend in which typically white roles are filled by actors of various racial and ethnic backgrounds and diverse casting in superhero movies is no longer an asset but simply a given.

Ironically, what prevents me from ultimately recommending Spider-Man: Homecoming are its too many other givens. For me, it didn't veer enough from the path Spidey has already tread, and despite the energy and enthusiasm of those who made it, and the superb production values, Homecoming lacks that really strong script I mentioned at the beginning. Perhaps the filmmakers consciously settled on the script they shot, which is safe and conventional, in order establish this new inflection of Spider-Man. Maybe they're waiting until this new Spidey's standalone sequel before they take a fresher and riskier approach to the material. The encouraging news is, Homecoming at least proves they can make a good movie. But in a Hollywood overrun by superheroes, I think it should be on them to make a great one.